Toward the Abolition of a Liberal Foucault

Question: Is Foucault a liberal, albeit an extreme or idiosyncratic one? (No.)

Let’s begin with a dominant American reading of Foucault that paints him as a liberal humanist.  Todd May calls this the ‘prodigal son’ view.[1] As the story goes, Foucault’s  ‘middle period’ (Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Volume 1) was characterized by strong anti-humanism that made his concepts of power subjectless and totalizing.  Recognizing the error of his ways, Foucault then makes a break from these theories with his later work (History of Sexuality, volumes 2 and 3) and softens his anti-humanist stance to include ‘ethico-aesthetic subjectivity’ as form of ethical self-creation that resists the normalizing impulse of subjectivization.  For liberals, Foucault’s ‘ethical turn’ acts as a bridge between all of his other work – brokering the seemingly incongruous relationship between archaeology and genealogy, providing a thread to trace through a discontinuous chain of problematizations, and suggesting a mechanism that serves as a foundation for critical scholarship.

On its face, accepting Foucault as a liberal feels like a recuperative move meant to reassure those who don’t want to take seriously the implications of his work.  If Foucault couldn’t work through his theories of power and in the last analysis had to recant in favor of the more familiar ground of agency and the liberal subject, it soothes the nerves of liberals who anxiously felt that they were the ones under attack in Foucault’s work on power.  On the other hand, however, this shouldn’t be assuring to them at all – Foucault provided little ground to extrapolate a theory of ‘ethico-aesthetic subjectivity’ from.  The self-creation in History of Sexuality volumes 2 and 3 are dealing with problematizations unique to context of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Continue reading “Toward the Abolition of a Liberal Foucault”